Adams 14 board tries again to cut ties with management company

Parents and children wearing winter coats and masks walk to school on a snowy day.
Adams 14 students walked to school as they returned to in-person learning in late January 2021. Students are back in remote learning again this week. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

The Adams 14 school board voted Tuesday night to end its contract with its management company, prompting the State Board of Education on Wednesday to reconsider more drastic actions to improve the district. 

It’s the second time the local board has attempted this school year to cut ties with the company that has control over the district under a state order. The State Board of Education forced the district to take the company back after the first attempt, pulling Adams 14’s accreditation for a few days. But the State Board left the door open to end the relationship if the district went through a process to show the state it had good cause.

Even though both MGT leaders and the district’s superintendent have made public statements about their willingness to work together, tensions only have continued to escalate. The district paid a consultant to do a fiscal audit of MGT’s spending, and MGT directed an investigation into employees allegedly being told to lie to those fiscal auditors. And last week the district filed a lawsuit against MGT claiming the company is violating open records laws by not sharing documents about the investigation it directed.

Meanwhile, the district has withheld releasing results of the fiscal audit.

On Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education said neither the department nor the State Board were informed before the Tuesday vote of the district’s attempt to cut ties.

The resolution the Adams 14 board approved would end the MGT contract in 90 days, by April 11. The district is planning to go through a process to notify the state and request a change to its order.

The State Board Wednesday requested recommendations from an external review panel by March about what is the most viable option to order changes to Adams 14. Under state accountability laws the state has limited options to deal with a low-performing district, but it could close down schools, turn them into charter schools, or order reorganization such as merging schools into other districts. 

The State Board in 2018 followed a recommendation from a similar panel to order an external management company take over daily operations after many years of low student performance. State Board members Wednesday said that they doubt the district is likely to work well under that model anymore. 

“This partnership that we were assured was back on track in October is anything but back on track,” said Angelika Schroeder, chair of the State Board. “We’ve wasted our students’ time. They deserve so much more than this. I don’t know that this situation warrants a management partner at all anymore.”

MGT officials said they believe the district is again in violation of the state’s orders.

“The surprising action by the local school board to terminate our contract violates the State’s order — again,” said Andre Wright, MGT’s manager for Adams 14 in a released statement. “We welcome an independent review of what has played out in Adams 14 since the new superintendent arrived. We are confident the independent review will show our steadfast focus on students and families while the local board and new superintendent continue to exacerbate a power struggle of their own making.”

The Adams 14 board vote came as a surprise, as it was not listed on the meeting’s agenda. Who sets the board’s agendas has been a point of contention between the superintendent and MGT leaders. Recently, MGT has approved meeting agendas. 

“This may be a surprise or a shock to our community but if they’ve been keeping along with the documents that we have available, and things that have been communicated out there, they will understand the reasoning for this,” board President Ramona Lewis said just before the unanimous vote. 

There was no public comment about the vote Tuesday. But in recent months, the board has heard a mix of comments both in support and against the MGT contract. 

Ariel Smith, co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that has worked with Adams 14 parents, said Wednesday morning that many parents and observers were concerned about what the vote meant, either way.

“This feels like yet again another moment of instability,” Smith said. “It just doesn’t feel like adults working together.”

Adams 14 students all have been learning remotely this week. Colorado’s Education Commissioner Katy Anthes told the State Board Wednesday that Adams 14 is the only district the state is aware of that has gone completely to virtual learning due to COVID and staffing issues.

Karla Loria, the Adams 14 superintendent, told the Adams 14 board Tuesday that so far, virtual instruction was netting higher attendance than in-person instruction had been. She said the district expects to return to in-person learning Monday, but will make a determination later this week. 

On Tuesday the Adams 14 board also passed a resolution that temporarily requires any district spending over $1,000 that isn’t already in the budget, to go through a board vote. Board members said that although the motion would pose a burden to the district, they felt they needed to be good fiscal stewards of taxpayer dollars.

One issue that may have contributed to the resolution is the issue of who approved hiring the lawyer to investigate potential lying to fiscal auditors. MGT officials initially said Adams 14 hired the investigating attorney, but the superintendent and the board claimed to not be aware of the investigation. 

The board also has spent months attempting to review and edit policies that MGT had them approve in 2020 that redefined which contracts needed board approval, excluding many categories of contracts. 

The superintendent had flagged those changes to the board and is still reviewing the policies to present alternatives. In the meantime, the board passed Tuesday’s resolution asking for authority to approve any spending over $1,000.

The board also cited the need to be good stewards of money in cutting ties with MGT. The district has spent more than $7 million on the MGT contract. Loria has questioned whether MGT was taking the money and also billing the district for subcontractors doing the same work. That’s why the board commissioned the fiscal audit, but instead of releasing the results under open records laws, the district forwarded the report to the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for review. 

The district says that because the audit “is a record compiled for law enforcement purposes” it is exempt from open records laws and thus is withholding the audit from the public. 

The district attorney’s office has not provided any update as to when it might complete the review or make a determination about whether any charges are warranted. 

In the first attempt to cut ties with MGT, Loria relied on a consultant’s report, and an attorney immediately locked out MGT employees. This time, the board’s resolution would end the contract in 90 days.

The district’s new attorney Joseph Salazar said Wednesday that the district is now following the appropriate process to cut ties with MGT, and said that he confirmed with the attorney general on Tuesday that the state did not need prior notification. 

Board President Lewis also noted at the board meeting that the district already has been searching for a replacement management partner. 

“We do not think that we can do this alone,” Lewis said.

Salazar also said that the district has more evidence against MGT than it did in its first attempt to fire the consultant and pointed to details in its lawsuit as evidence. For example, a letter MGT sent to Adams 14 asking for a discussion and noting that the results of the MGT-led investigation may reflect poorly on the district is being cited as an attempt to “illegally influence public servants.” 

Read the full lawsuit here.

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